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Creatives not Creationists

This is a post by guest blogger Ellen Bulger.

When the lines of engagement are drawn, most everyone counts science on the side of atheism. But many theists claim art as theirs and theirs alone. Atheists, we are told, are cold, bitter, empty souls. “Look,” we are admonished, “look at all the great art that was created in the name of religion.” Endlessly we hear how artists come down on the side of god.

Folded Church © Ellen Bulger

I call bullshit.

I hear the magnificent musical masses and songs of praise. I can’t take my eyes off the soaring cathedrals with their stained glass and altar triptychs. But you think those things are proof that creativity springs from a god? Then you are so not an artist.

Artists need to eat. Artists need to buy materials. Artists need a place to live and work. Artists need their work to be seen because it is, after all, COMMUNICATION.

Artists need to be safe from persecution. Not for nothing, if you do sculpture or painting in a totalitarian state, you seriously increase your chances for sponsorship by perfecting a style of portraiture that reflects back at the PTB like Snow White’s Stepmother’s mirror. You might even extend your life expectancy. During much of Europe’s history, you towed the line of whatever Christian sect was dominant at the given time, or you risked your life, never mind getting a big fat generous patron. The only grants available during the dark ages were from the church. It is no coincidence that the fundies want to shut down the NEA.

But having been through the art school route, I can tell you that there is damn little discussion of god. Or rather, god gets no more attention than science or politics and considerably less attention than light, form, color, composition and, oh yes, sex and death. As far as I can tell, contemporary artists explore god mostly as a concept. Artists are less interested about god than they are in man’s relationship to god, in much the same way as they are interested in man’s relationship to everything else. Doubtless there are exceptions. And if artists want to question god and religion, they aren’t necessarily vocal about it. What they do is, put those questions into their work and then display it and let the public do the interpreting. Artists might rub your nose in issues public and private, but they won’t necessarily spell it out for you. You are required to participate.

Artist © Ellen Bulger

The artists I know who are atheists are quiet atheists. And there are artists who are quietly religious. But the public discussion between artists is not one of “Let us strive to express the glory of god!” as some would have you believe.

The pandering politicians who bristle at contemporary art yearn for the good old days. Yet their very reactionary reactiveness has elevated Serrano’s Piss Christ into an iconic work of historical significance. Do they realize that? Mustn’t it just, you should pardon the expression, grill their cheese?

Many conservatives would like all art to be propagandist patriotic or comforting mirrors to the collective narcissism. It’s queasy making. Really, atheists should get together and commission a spectacularly tacky 30-ft bronze of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It would be a droll and delightful project. And we should install it in the lobby of a National Museum of Atheism. I’m envisioning a modest-yet-imposing marble structure of Greek revival-style architecture. We should raise money and acquire an existing building or build one right in D.C.. Then wait and pray for Banksy to come along and tag the motherfuckin’ shit out of the exterior. EVEN IF HE IS CRITICIZING US. Wear it proudly, like the best ink EVER.

Great art often makes people uncomfortable. Like science, art is an exploration. Art is also communication. Science asks, what do we know, what is real? Sometimes art just says LOOK, and leaves the rest up to you. Art often asks, what do we think, and why do we think it? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir makes music, not history. They don’t change the way people think about music and sound and the world. They don’t challenge us.

Creative expression is not magical, even if observer and artist alike are often unaware of the processes at work. The religious think that art is a gift from god. Scientists act like they suspect artists are idiot savants.

What both sides miss is that art is problem solving. Artists, like scientists, build on the work of those who came before them. But unlike scientists, they are free to ignore the old knowledge and head off in an entirely new direction. Instead of standing on shoulders, artists might choose to tie some giant shoelaces together to catch the Titans unaware.

Art can simultaneously be freewheeling and an intellectual exercise, though often a non-verbal one. Art is banging together concept rocks in your head to make sparks, make FIRE. To really dig it, you have to let go. You can’t just be comfortable with uncertainty, you have to seek it. You have to crave it. Or so it seems to me.

These are my thoughts. I’m just one artist, a very tiny sample size of me. I’d like to hear from other artists who are atheists and see what they have to say. I’d like to feature their art here.

As atheists, we believe that man created god, not the other way around. As artists? Hell, we just get down to work and create.


  1. F says

    I see very little religiously-inspired art. Of course, the god-therefore-art crowd probably dismisses much of this as not-art, or lesser art.

    But the funny thing about a lot of religiously-inspired art is that it can be very limited in subject and style, and so the interesting works had to innovate, but not too much, which I suppose is one way to drive creativity. This, of course, is for things that are not more or less copies of copies of copies.

    To extend this to architecture, which is their wont, they point at cathedrals and churches (yes, I’m keeping in the Euro-Christian zone), and point to a dearth of magnificent non-religious architecture over long periods, and conclude none of this art could have happened without religion or god. In a sense, this is true, like the preservation of books canard. Religion kept other enterprises from happening, took great chunks of the land and money, and hired lots of the artists. And generally did things to keep everyone else less powerful and religion-focused. It stifled a lot of human potential for a long time. Of course there aren’t a lot of things like unto cathedral architecture of the secular. What could have been done without a climate of oppression would have been far more spectacular and human.

    Besides, artistic inspiration comes from the plaid wavelength of meleteons, which are the energy quanta of the genius field which surrounds and suffuses us all.

    • pipenta says

      Can we bottle it, this essence of plaid melon ball genius inspiration? Folks could spritz it on like perfume.

      I have an idea for the label design, but not so sure about the rest of the packaging.

      We’ll make a fortune.

      No, that would be wrong. Share, share, share!

      We could have it come misting down from the ceilings in museums and schools and supermarkets and bus stations.

  2. smrnda says

    Art usually requires some connection to reality in order for it to reach anyone, and it’s difficult to be honest about reality when dogma is constraining what you are supposed to observe and what you are supposed to report, what you should praise and what you should criticize.

    I read a lot, and I can’t think of many good writers who were orthodox Christians at all, and even Christians go grasping for names when they want to cite a Christian author. Music is the same way, churches just appropriate popular music (often badly) but people who explore usually aren’t conventionally religious because religion discourages exploration, or only permits it if, in the end, you come back the same as when you went.

    I really don’t see the to-do about the old religious art. It’s bland, gaudy, and usually just boring, because it’s just propaganda.

    • pipenta says

      At the very least, religious art had historical significance. And it was the only game in town. Some of it is brilliant, but when you’ve had centuries of controlling the resources that allow artists to work, you’re going to build up quite an inventory from which to select the cream of the crop.

      I bet there is some religious art that you’d think was pretty smashing. Do a Google image search for Egungun and check out those costumes! And didn’t you love all that ancient Egyptian tomb art when you were a kid, all stylized elegance and marvelous monsters?

      But the people who made the costumes and the masks and the temples and the music were not all inspired by god. They were human artists doing what human artists do.

  3. says

    I’m not sure that being an atheist has had that much effect on my art. I’ve been an atheist for 50+ years and a practicing sculptor for 25. I’ve done a lot of mythological themed work because I was interested in mythology since I was a kid. I just do what I want to do without trying to put any particular hidden meaning into a piece. Most of the artists I know are atheists or agnostics. But that may be because that’s who I feel comfortable to be with.

    • pipenta says

      I’m in the same boat. I don’t know that I’ve done a huge amount of art that directly addressed my atheism, though once in a while I bump up against religious subjects. But my atheism is at the core of my world view and that has in influence on most everything I do and every choice I make.

      You are an artist and you are an atheist. You, sir, are a living breathing argument against the surprisingly common misconception that atheists are joyless and uncreative and incapable of appreciating beauty.

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